It can be tempting to view attention as all-or-nothing. Either you have the audience’s attention, or you don’t. But this isn’t the most accurate view of human attention. It turns out our attention occurs more along the lines of a continuum.
In their article, “The Interaction-Attention Continuum: Considering Various Levels of Human Attention in Interaction Design” published in The International Journal of Design, Saskia Bakker and Karin Niemantsverdriet outline this spectrum of attention. The continuum involves focused interaction, peripheral interaction, and implicit interaction.
This theory examines how users interact with technology design. However, we can view presentations as things we design for audience interaction. This can help us to create presentation graphics and content more effectively.
This is the type of interaction and attention we are seeking for the majority of our presentations. Think about a spotlight. Whatever it shines on falls within the focused interaction category—it consumes the majority of mental, emotional, and physical focus. However, not every part of the presentation can be within the realm of focused interaction. Some things will naturally have to fall to the periphery because of the limited capacity of human attention.
You can use the continuum to change the way you think about presentation content design. If your audience only has the capacity to “spotlight” one thing at a time, what is it that you want them to spotlight? For every moment of the presentation, is it clear to you and to the audience what they should center their focus on?
I used to think speakers should have nothing on the screen when they aren’t directly referencing that presentation media. I thought that even a company logo on a slide could serve as distracting. But this new research on how human attention works helps us understand that might not be the case.
The things at the edge of our focus still gain our attention, they just don’t have our conscious and direct attention. The presentation graphics, when not directly conveying information, can still be communicating even though they are peripheral. This means a company logo on the screen might not be a bad idea. It’s not competing to get into the attention “spotlight,” but it might still be “interacting’ with the audience on a subconscious level. Or if the presentation media is doing the majority of the work, you, the presenter, might fall to the periphery briefly.
This third type of interaction happens without conscious thought and without intention. You’ve had implicit interactions when you walk through an automatic door. You don’t walk up to a store with conscious thought or intention to open the door, but nevertheless, the door opens and you interact by walking through it.
This type of interaction is reserved for more automated or sensor-activated technologies. As presentations are intended to gain and maintain conscious attention, this third category of the interaction-attention continuum doesn’t apply as much as the other two.
As a speaker, writer, and professor of communication, I spend a lot of time reading about new theories and research in the field, but it’s been a while since I’ve encountered a theory as helpful as this one. The very idea of a presentation as a creation with which audience members interact has challenged some of what I’ve always thought to be true about presentation design.
Most importantly, it allows us to move into content creation asking the following important questions. What do I want my audience to focus on (to spotlight)? And how am I using peripheral information to communicate with my audience on a subconscious level of attention and interaction?
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